Why did bacon pop up everywhere? What was the deal with baked beans in places they didn’t belong?
Bacon – And Ads Ruin Everything
Bacon has an incredibly distinctive smell. Even if you don’t regularly eat it (or at all), the odds are that you’ll still know what you’re smelling when you walk into a Denny’s. The color and proportions of a slice of American-style bacon are also immediately recognizable to Americans no matter the art form. Abstract, pixelated, you name it, Americans have seen it. The breakfast food industry in America is partly to blame for bacon’s recognizability – most cold cereals are unhealthy by themselves, so every advertising campaign must include the phrase *part of a balanced breakfast to avoid being sued (thus including the classic picture of a glass of OJ, bacon, and eggs on the side next to the cereal, which is a meal already).
A much bigger part of the blame lands on the pork industry, which deliberately began pushing bacon after a nation-wide misunderstanding that ‘eating fat makes you fat’ was causing the public to shift away from the fattier parts of the pig. People went for leaner cuts, or if they still wanted their bacon and didn’t want to risk their cholesterol, they’d buy turkey bacon instead of the real stuff. Big Pork, with a ton of unrealized potential profits, partnered with fast food chains to make bacon cool again.
Internally Generated Ads
Ideas such as “Fast food is already bad for you – why not go all out?” and “Dieting is something women do, and you’re a man, so go eat bacon” scattered ad campaigns and then trickled down to the web. Compounding this was an emerging reliance on headline-science, which are science articles boiled down to a headline on sites like Digg or Reddit. There is no room for nuance in 50 characters, and thanks to the already budding love of bacon created by advertisers, the people posting bacon research articles were siding with bacon. Headlines like “fat is not making you fat, sugar is” got mistranslated and misunderstood into “bacon is good for you, sugar is the enemy”, when the actual article talked about things like caloric density and glycemic index to indicate that fats shouldn’t be cut out entirely, like they had been a decade earlier, not that adding excess fat to your diet is a good idea unless it was already missing. Only a small portion of the people who read the headline click through to the article, though – many just scroll on after absorbing this ‘news’, and some go to the comment section for a synopsis made by someone else because they don’t want to leave Reddit itself.
Bacon’s reputation recovered. Bacon, now, was a buddy. It just so happened that this new friend bacon was being puppeteered by an industry.
Rise and Fall
Bacon then crept in on the Cheezburger network (a collection of sites most famous for Reaction Animals memes and Fail blog), Buzzfeed, and other content websites from there. Bacon and bacon fat, of course, are perfectly valid ingredients, and in moderation are fine… but people took it to an extreme. Suddenly it was funny and popular to make things baconated. Bacon-scented candles. Bacon-flavored lip balm. Bacon-scented dryer sheets. Bacon-flavored candy (and candied bacon). Bacon cupcakes, bacon deodorant, bacon sunscreen. Everything. Could be bacon. And big pork was loving this, because it meant their ad campaign had become self-sustaining.
People didn’t want to be a buzzkill by mentioning that bacon was sort of bad for you, and if you eat too much of it for a long time, weird stuff starts happening to your heart and colon because of the salt and preservatives. Even if they did want to be a buzzkill, other people would shout them down with some variation of ‘we know, but it’s just a joke, man’ when they’d made an Epic Meal-Time style bacon burger with two packs of bacon to post online. Before millennials truly came to understand the all-consuming power of the market and big businesses, it was funny to buy and own these things because everyone else was doing it. It was easy to connect over bacon. The ad campaigns worked, and they didn’t connect the dots that the idea had been advertised to them on TV. Bacon was made a personality type, and it’s easy to advertise to ‘person who likes bacon’. Just sell them more bacon things. They’ll buy it.
This started dying down later in the 2010s for a number of reasons – bacon got more expensive, more extensive research on the negatives was published and because the internet had changed people finally listened, a growing awareness of the obesity epidemic, the aging of the core demographic that bacon mania hit, etc.. Bacon remains in recipes and artisanal shops just like it did before all the memes. It’s tasty! It’s just not an ‘everywhere, everything, all of the time’ food.
Baked Beans – The Opposite Effect
And then some time in the late 2010s to early 2020s, baked beans proved that the internet could make its own memes about food without outside adverts subliminally convincing them, thank you very much. Baked beans aren’t a universally liked food. Especially canned. Homemade baked beans, with real brown sugar, bacon, and a lot of tomato paste? Delightful. At worst, tolerable. Canned baked beans, barely heated and not dressed up? Has the texture of gluey applesauce and a lack of real flavor besides some vaguely molasses-ey sweetness. They’re not good. I think anyone who had TV in the late 2000s-early 2010s zone remembers the Busch’s Baked Beans dog, and yet baked beans are not anywhere nearly as loved as bacon is.
Unlike bacon, baked beans never appeared on national fast food menus en masse, and if it did, even regionally, it didn’t stay there. This is because unlike bacon, baked beans are messy and difficult to cook and serve if a restaurant doesn’t already have the infrastructure to do so. Waffle House could have done it, a lot of sit-down places could have done it, but places like Hardees and Wendy’s that got bacon to blow up wouldn’t be able to without a lot of extra expense. Baked beans didn’t have some gigantic industrial machine behind them to finance it, anyway, so they never tried! Baked beans, for a lot of people, appeared at barbecues during the summer and almost nowhere else. There is no Big Baked Bean machine working behind the scenes to make them cool.
This led to a bizarre sort of alienification of the food. Off the top of your head, what kind of bean is used for Busch’s baked beans? If you don’t already make them yourself or if you don’t have an allergy that forces you to look at the back of the can, it’s just “beans”, isn’t it? Generic. They’re a weird color. They have a weird aftertaste. The texture is like nothing else on Earth, a weird grainy texture that’s not quite like egg white but not as rich as a real gravy. They’re also immediately recognizable despite this, a bizarrely colored pale brown fluid with small misshapen orbs in it. It’s a food that could be mistaken for some weird marine lifeform’s eggs in the right context. Thus, the anti-baconification of baked beans took place.
Baked beans started appearing where they didn’t belong. Popsicles. Cereal boxes. Gas tanks. PC Towers. Ice cubes. Envelopes. Planted items in grocery stores. Kiddie pools. Hats. Anywhere that they’d be gross and unwelcome, somebody would put them there for a picture or a prank. Baked beans companies just sort of stood off to the side watching it happen. It was selling beans in a generation that was less likely to buy them, after all – and as long as the older folks didn’t see this happening and become disgusted by the trend, not much was lost.
It’s a perfect anti-bacon meme. The purchasable item is not made more desirable by the memes, and the companies making the product had no hand in how this meme took off – it just sort of did by itself. The product itself is pretty harmless (outside of the sugar content) but obnoxious. It’s not a personality type, either. Even the people making most of the memes approach it with a kind of self-aware irony, and they wouldn’t call themselves total bean fanatics or bean lovers unless it made a joke funnier. Shirts with the product on it are not worn unironically or around strangers that the wearer might see again. It’s come full opposite in a world where adverts have become the enemy.